“Childbirth was excruciating, I felt a pain I had never experienced before, it was more intense than what I could take both physically and mentally. I was too young to go through something like this. They put the newborn in my arms and I stared in surprise as if I was carrying a doll”.
Joelle Abd El Aal
In every village, there is a popular “tough guy” whom everyone knows and loves. In my village, this guy was Khaled. At least, that is what his many fans, myself included, thought. Perhaps because as teenage girls we spent our time dreaming about a protective “superman” who would care for us and shield us from every harm. I used to drown in my princess’ land of dreams every time I saw him. We never talked, but my heart pounded like a drum each time we met by chance.
I was a freshman at the institute when we first talked.
After I got my 9th grade certificate, I decided to quit school and study Accounting. On a wet day of September 2006, I was standing alone under a heavy rain, waiting for a bus to take me back home, when I noticed Khaled’s minibus driving close by. He parked and I ran, tapped on his window, asked if I could hop inside. He didn’t mind at all and wiped the back seat before I sat. It seemed to me that this gentle move was meant to impress me.
He drove all the other students home before me, even though my house was closer than theirs. When it was just the two of us in the minibus, he asked me to come to the front seat. I refused at first, but he insisted, so I did. He took the chance to ask about my name, my age, and my major of study. I answered, “My name is Reem, I’m fifteen and I study Accounting.” He then asked if I would like to apply for his student transportation service. I was ecstatic but had to curb my enthusiasm and tell him that I needed to get my mom’s permission first. I told him that if he was around his family’s shop on Sunday, I would pass by and let him know of my parents’ decision. He nodded and we exchanged friendly goodbyes and smiles when he dropped me off.
I lost no time running to ask my mother, who instantly agreed.
Never in my life had I wanted a Sunday morning to come. I woke up super early that day, brushed my hair, and lifted it up a little bit so my face was clear, trying hard to look “prettier”. Then, I ran to the shop that Khaled’s parents owned. I was deeply relieved to find him there, standing in front of the door. In my heart, I hoped that he was standing there waiting for me. I said hello in a rush and went in to buy some stuff. On my way out, I talked to him:
“Starting tomorrow, I will ride with you to and from my institute.”
I don’t recall much of our conversation. I only remember the happy look in his eyes, which seemed to be on fire with excitement; much like my own!
I woke up early on Monday, waiting impatiently for him to come pick me up. When the minibus arrived, I ran and was about to climb to the back when he called me to come sit next to him and my two girlfriends who had already occupied the front seats. I didn’t hesitate and squeezed myself between him and the two girls. We were sitting shoulder to shoulder. I noticed his eyes wandering over me. I didn’t really understand his gaze, but still thought it was kind of cute. I felt embarrassed, confused, and kept my head titled to the ground while thinking with exhilaration, “Where do I look? What should I do? Does he love me?”
I thought he must have liked me.
A week after we first met, we were driving alone in the minibus and Khaled confessed to me that he liked me a lot. He was barely nineteen but I felt that his presence had already filled my life and made up for all the emotional lack I had experienced. One thought took hold of me at the time: If only I could win his heart, he would surely protect me from all the evil in the world. No one would ever be able to hurt me.
Only now do I think that I might have never really loved him. How could I have loved him when I had known him for merely three months? That was when my parents found out about us and forced us into a formal engagement. Had I really been in love, I still had no intention of getting married so soon and at such a young age.
My mother found out about us through our neighbors’ daughter who also used to take Khaled’s minibus to school. The first thing my mother did was pull me by the hair and drag me down the stairs, while asking me to tell the truth about my “relationship with Adnan’s son”. I denied everything over and over, but the more I did, the harder she would hit, curse, and scream. In her incessant fear of people’s opinions about us, my mother saw a crime in our simple love. She would repeat: “people will talk!” All I wanted that night was to get through to Khaled to tell him that I had been beaten, punished and banned from going to my classes. Wasn’t he supposed to be my superhero?
The next day, Khaled noticed my absence and asked his sister to call me and pretend to tell me about what I had missed in class.
– “Khaled is extremely worried about you and wants to know if you’re alright.”
As I listened to her words, I was trembling like a leaf and crying my eyes out. I wanted him to save me so bad. Khaled took over the phone and said:
– “I want to marry you, but I have nothing. I don’t have my future planned out yet, so what can I do?”
I was forbidden from going to the institute or seeing my friends, and, as a result, I missed a lot of my classes. All throughout my “imprisonment” period, I kept asking “what did I do to deserve such a cruel punishment?”, but my mom did not heed my complaints. If anything, she was only growing more insistent that Khaled comes and ask for my hand in marriage.
Eventually, more than two weeks later, my mom allowed me to go back to classes, albeit in a different transportation vehicle of her own choice. However, she only got lenient after I reassured her that I had communicated a message to Khaled through a friend of mine, to come over and talk to her about our relationship in a more formal way, and that he had confirmed that he would come visit us once he got back from Beirut.
Up until then, my father didn’t know about Khaled and I. When I started going back to the institute, things somewhat settled, until the day I decided to go with some friends to Beirut and meet Khaled. Somehow, the news reached my cousin who, unbeknownst to me, was the girlfriend of one of Khaled’s friends. For some reason, she decided to sabotage my plan. I was in class that day when the principal entered and called my name. I stood up, jolted by his question, but he simply asked me to sit down again and left. I got my explanation when I got back home as I found out that my father had been contacted by an anonymous number, telling him that I had eloped with Khaled, the son of Adnan. My father, who had always been very tough and strict, went absolutely crazy, so he asked Khaled to make haste and pay us a formal visit. All I could do was warn Khaled that my father knew, and tell him that things couldn’t wait any longer to be resolved.
In my naiveté, I honestly believed that Khaled meeting my parents meant my prison break; my freedom, but only later did I realize that he was just as powerless as I was. When he finally came to meet my mother, he told her that he loved me and wanted us to get engaged, but that he had no job and was waiting to be accepted into the army before asking for my hand. But, my mother insisted that we get engaged immediately.
Eventually, he gave in. His parents approved of our engagement and, soon enough, I was jumping around enthusiastically preparing for the event and happily stressing over details. I now look back at my happiness on that day and think to myself that it was the fact that I was escaping my parents’ harshness that made me happy, rather than the engagement itself. I was overwhelmed with shyness and anxiety as the guests started arriving, and my hands trembled as I tried to greet them and serve them coffee. That was the part I was supposed to play. For the rest of the time, I sat in my room by myself, eavesdropping on their conversations. Khaled and his family stressed the fact that he couldn’t afford buying an apartment. My father did not object, and, instead, suggested that Khaled rent an apartment. My parents agreed to everything else and didn’t even comment on the fact that we were of different religious sects.
On the day of the “Katb Kitab” (Islamic formal engagement), I was a girl in the background. I waited aside as my father and the groom’s father talked, clasped their hands together, and repeated some words after the sheikh. Everything happened so simply, without anyone giving as much as a look at me.
The next day, Khaled invited me to dinner, to which my father responded, “how the hell is it okay for you to leave the house and be seen with a man?”. My mother, however, intervened and convinced him that it was perfectly fine and that, since we’ve been through the “Katb Kitab”, people had no right to talk. During our engagement, I tirelessly tried to convince my mother that the marriage should wait until I am through with my studies, that I had ambitions and wanted to become a bank employee after my graduation. My mother simply said that my father would never approve, “An unmarried young woman can’t continue to go out with a man like this. The sooner you get married the better.”
I was contented with keeping myself busy setting up our home to be, even more so when I heard people’s encouragements. I looked forward to getting married as they repeated to me how marriage was going to make me happy. “You’ll see”, they said, “you’ll be a married woman, have children, and love your new life. A woman only needs her husband in the end. What good is a degree or a job? We’re destined for the kitchen, anyway.”
Only now do I know the truth. Sometimes I ask myself: “What would my life be if I had listened to what I really wanted instead of what my parents dictated?” But they neither listened to me nor tried to understand my needs. Instead, they succumbed to customs, traditions and fear of society’s judgement. Maybe if they had agreed to making the period of our engagement a little longer, I would have gotten to know Khaled better, and then, perhaps, I would have stepped back and decided not to go through with the wedding. Maybe…
One year and three months later, my new marital home was ready, but I was not. On my wedding’s day, I had a fight with Khaled, and doubts came rushing into my heart. The reason behind the fight was a silly dream I had and which I wanted to fulfill so badly. Like any teenage girl, I dreamed about doing a photoshoot with my groom in a nice place, but Khaled said he was busy. I was absolutely devastated. I threw my wedding band to his face. I was looking for any kind of excuse to call the wedding off. Maybe because some of my girlfriends were trying to talk me out of it, telling me to go back to class with them. They had realized, just as I had, that once I leave my studies, I would never be able to go back, even if I talked it over with Khaled.
Eventually, I lost my ground and apologized because I saw how intimidatingly destructive the pressure from my parents could be. It was a done deal.
I cried with a heavy heart that day. I felt that I was forced into a marriage at such a young age. Sometimes I feel like I don’t know what the word “childhood” really means. I blame my parents for stripping that away from me. My childhood was a series of “don’ts” embroidered by their favorite words “it’s forbidden”.
Later that day, my eldest sister took me aside and asked me to sit down while carefully shutting the door.
– “Listen. When the wedding is over, you will go to your house with Khaled and you will sleep in his bed. He will approach you, and at one point, you will feel a little sting, like a quick needle prick…”
I could not understand a word she was saying, so I confusedly asked:
– “What do you mean, a needle?”
She wouldn’t explain any further. She only warned me of refusing this “sting” and said that I would be evading my marital responsibilities if I did; that I would be deeply dishonoring the family, and that people would start asking questions on whether I had been a “girl” – that is a “virgin”, as I only understood later on. Then, trying to comfort me, she told me not to worry because Khaled already knew all about this stuff.
– “He’s a man and he knows. If you love him, you only have to do as he says and you’ll be just fine. Don’t rush it. He’ll answer your questions later.”
Khaled and I went to our new home after the wedding. I was sitting in bed when, out of nowhere, he jumped on top of me and started erratically kissing me and trying to undress me. Things were moving so fast that my head spun and fear crippled me. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do so I found myself screaming at him and asking him to stop. He tried to comfort me with the same words my sister had used earlier, “It’s only a little sting”. I exploded in tears, feeling so alone. But my apparent sorrow meant nothing to him. He kept trying again and again until sunrise, but I didn’t budge.
Early in the morning, my mother, sisters, and aunts came to visit me. As I was walking to open the door, I recalled what my sister had told me about the pain I would feel after I become a “woman”, that is after I lose my virginity. As soon as they walked in, I started faking pain and walking awkwardly as if I was feeling uncomfortable. They instantly started whispering to each other and giggling. “So, did everything go well?”, they asked. I felt absolutely embarrassed and ran to the kitchen to bring them something to drink, but my mother followed me inside. As she cornered me, I felt like I had no choice but to tell her the truth: “Nothing happened. I panicked.” She got very upset and said, “This is a scandal. Do not tell a soul about what happened! Tonight, you must place this sheet underneath you so that everyone, most importantly your husband, would know that you are indeed a virgin.”
That night, I tried to force myself to please the cheering audience and go through with it, but I failed.
Khaled was getting increasingly restless and sick of my withholding. On the third night, he said it was imperative to end this chase. No more excuses and no more delays, otherwise he would begin to question his manhood, and it would be an enormous scandal for him. I was still terrified, and the word “needle” kept resonating in my head. Though, I gave up trying to resist and surrendered my body. After he was through with me, I felt my very soul being shattered into pieces. I can’t find words to describe the fear that filled me. It was like any sense of safety had been stripped away from me forever…
I became a “woman” while still a 16-year-old teenage girl. I wept because I did not understand what had happened to me, but Khaled mistook my sadness for physical pain. He asked me if he had hurt me and I shook my head silently.
In the morning, I handed my mother and my mother-in-law the sheet I was supposed to use. They took one look at it and let go of their happy “zaghrouta”, congratulating me for something that remained obscure in my mind. I didn’t know who I was for the next 3 days. I wept every time he had sex with me. I would look at myself in the mirror after, self-loathing, disgusted, asking myself: “Is this what married life is like? Is this what Khaled said would be the most beautiful days of our lives?” To this day, I don’t know where the “intimacy” went when we got “intimate”. It was nothing but some horrifying and gut wrenching activity to me. Days went by and I still cried and felt hurt and horrified whenever he approached me, but he would not take no for an answer. My job as a wife was to obey and pleasure him.
I got pregnant for the first time three months into our marriage. I was only sixteen years old, and had conflicting emotions. I wanted the baby, yet, I didn’t want it. I knew deep inside that I was simply not ready to have a kid. Still, a sense of joy washed over me when I found out I was pregnant, because that meant people, neighbors and family would not think I was sterile. I was even happier to learn that I was having a boy because that was what my husband had wished for and because all families get extra thrilled about baby boys. Again, I now realize how childish and stupid I was thinking that birthing a baby boy would stop my husband from leaving me for another woman.
It was around that time that Khaled cheated on me for the first time. I had arrived home back from a visit to my sister when I knocked on the door several times. I had to pile up some chairs and climb inside through the kitchen window, only to find Khaled– to my utter surprise -with a girlfriend of mine. I frantically cursed at her and Khaled’s response to this was attacking me, beating me, and bruising me until I bled all over. I suffered an internal bleeding as a result and I thought that I must have surely lost my fetus. I resorted to his mom for help. She picked me up and took me to the hospital. My fetus had miraculously survived, but I had to be nursed for the following week at his parents’ place. I never brought up that incident to my parents. I thought it was a one-time thing, but Khaled wasn’t deterred, and soon enough, he was doing it over and over again with such ease. As for me, I tried to redeem my lost dignity with wearing more makeup, sitting in front of my mirror for long hours, fixing myself up until I felt different, reborn, as a stronger woman who had a choice…
In this terrible mess of a life, I couldn’t even take the time to fully comprehend what it meant to carry a fetus inside my womb. My pregnancy was comprised of heavy doses of pain and suffering that allowed for no other feelings to seep in. At one point, I had to be hospitalized for ten days for Albumin deficiency and I lost a lot of weight.
I was absolutely miserable. When my water broke, I thought that I was suffering from urinary reflex. In fact, that’s what I told my mother when I called her, mortified. My delivery was pure torment. An unfamiliar kind of pain took hold of my every atom. Physically and mentally, I was about to break, as it felt too much for the body of a little girl to endure. When they placed the newborn in my arms, I felt distant. I just looked at it with wonder, clueless on what I should do to this apparent baby “toy”. I didn’t even know what to feel.
I had believed earlier that marriage was going to be a game of bride and groom. Well, that was as far as can be from the real deal. When my baby woke up crying in the middle of the night, I cried along, because it was impossible for me to understand what he wanted. When he got sick, I also fell ill. I was spending every minute with my baby, caring for him, playing with him, feeding him, and even talking out loud to him and complaining to him about things that bothered me…
Only nine months after I had my first son, I got pregnant with my second one. Despite all the violence I endured, I believed what people told me about how a second baby usually make husbands more responsible and affectionate. As time went by, I found out that life with Khaled was just as sickening as life at my parents’ was.
When the gynecologist examined me, I was terrorized. I had no idea what would happen in her office. She said that at 14, it was too early for me to bear a child but my in-laws still wanted me to go through an operation.
The violence never stopped, even after our second son. I was almost eighteen when I got brutally roughed up by him. That time, it was too much to take in. I ran to take refuge in my mother, thinking she would be more understanding than anyone else since she, herself, had been the victim of my father’s violence, but I was completely devastated to experience how coldly she reacted to my pleas. “Every man hits his woman”, she bluntly said, “and you must bear it for the sake of the children.”
A little while after that incident, bruised and bleeding, I fled my house to my parents’ place. My mother absolutely refused that we file a complaint against Khaled. “Why would we go after a madman?”, she said. I looked forward to what my father would do or say to protect me from Khaled, but he merely said to me, “If you want your husband and your children, you must return at once. You have no right to object to your husband’s acts, not even if he cheats on you with every woman in the village…”
After seven years of taking in all sorts of violence, insults, and cheating, I simply stopped telling my parents anything. I knew too well that they would not make the slightest effort to protect me. I felt scared and nervous during every second I spent next to Khaled, even in my sleep. I was deeply sickened by his touch, which was always forcible, never consensual, leading up to forcing me into having intercourse.
I was profoundly shattered by all of this. My marriage was anything but my teenage dream, yet, fearing people’s judgment and the possible loss of my children, I never dared asking for a divorce.
Hope can make a fool out of you.
In 2017, as I was expecting my third child, Khaled had given me his word that he would change and become a better man for our sake. He said he wanted to turn us into a happy family, so I conceived of my son, Amjad. At 26 years of age, I felt like I was just beginning to grasp the meaning of motherhood, and, for the first time, I felt a sincere desire to be a mother. I was no longer a child. I could feel the heartbeats of my fetus and its hand movements; it was growing inside of me. This time, I was consciously experiencing this growth. I was so satisfied with my pregnancy that my previously recurring pregnancy-related health issued seemed to have disappeared. My weight didn’t fluctuate and both my mental and physical health seemed at ease.
I was making a new start, with the honest intention and the complete readiness to turn around my married life into a happy one. Was that too naïve of me? Perhaps it was, but even the smartest woman in the world wouldn’t have foreseen a scenario in which a father murders his own child. Indeed, Khaled, in his obsessive madness, had murdered our baby. It happened as such: one night, Khaled was trying to approach me with a move that was so horrifying that I was never able to get used to it, even though he had done it several times before over the years. He stroked his lit cigarette over my skin, and as I reflexively twitched in shock and freight, a strange immediate feeling of loss washed over me.
I rushed to see my doctor the next day. As soon as I got out of the X-ray imaging, the doctor confirmed what I had already known, “We don’t have a pulse; the fetus is dead.” Mortified, I fell to the ground repeating his words in a trancelike state, “the baby’s dead… the baby’s dead”. I went into a severe prolonged depression. I suffered an inflammation in one of the nerves of my heart. The doctor prescribed me sedatives, including Tramadol, to which I got addicted for a long time. I became isolated and estranged from everything and everyone. I felt like a useless person; a failure who could not protect her own child. The idea of suicide loomed over my thoughts.
Khaled, on the other hand, was unaltered. He remained as aggressive, angry, and reckless as ever. That was more reason for me to cling even tighter to my two boys who had been my only close companions throughout my difficult time on sedatives. Because of them, and mostly because of Amjad, my savior who had sacrificed his soul for me, I took the decision to save whatever was left of my life. It was the idea that I would never be able to meet him, combined with the fact that life went on in all normalcy after he was gone, that prompted me to move on.
Every time I brought up the issue of divorce in the past, I would be blackmailed with being denied my own children. I would subsequently recede and return to my husband. After Amjad, I was a transformed woman; a stronger one who would put up a fight if she had to. The loss of my fetus had liberated me from every fear of loss and conjured up inside of me the courage and endurance to imagine being separated from my own flesh and blood. No one could threaten me of taking them away anymore.
I had already started planning my great escape, telling myself, “I am not a thing that he owns. No one has the right to treat me this way. Why am I afraid of him, anyway? What for? Isn’t it enough what I have tolerated so far? Don’t I get a chance to live? Am I not a human?” On a June day of 2019, I took off with my children to my parents’ house, where I confronted my mother and father for the first time in my life, “I want a divorce! If you don’t want us to stay here, I will just carry my children away to a place I choose, and you will never hear from us again…”
A short while before that, I had already started to change my behavior towards my parents. I grew more defiant, refusing to yield to their pressuring orders. To me, they were the ones behind the tragic mess that my life was; first, when they insisted that I marry when I was only a child, and second, when they abandoned me when I tried to take refuge in them after getting beaten up. It wasn’t surprising at all for me that they didn’t wish to help this time either. “Do you want people to slander our name?” was the excuse for their inaction. I couldn’t care less what they thought, and when my mother threatened to kill me if I did as I said, I stubbornly and coldly replied, “Well, kill me, then!”
Eventually, I got exactly what I wanted… for once! The sheikh told Khaled I was no longer his wife. I was a free woman. Nothing tied me to the false knight in a shining armor of my teenage years anymore. My divorce was the tip of the iceberg of my planned revenge, that would only be complete once I became fully independent from my parents’ grip. Only then will I really avenge my lost childhood and tainted teenage years.
I am no longer the fifteen-year-old girl named Reem. I am a different person today, who can see the world through a new pair of eyes. I realize now that my mother had wanted me to live her life, her way, while my father saw me as nothing more than one more mouth to feed, and was, therefore, happy to dump me on the shoulders of another man for sustenance. I now know that child marriage is nothing less than a death sentence for young helpless girls.
We need more out of life; a future, a dream to pursue, a career… All of those come before marriage. Maybe I didn’t know better or have the choice when I was fifteen, so I accepted whatever they threw at me. Today, nearing my 30th birthday, I can choose to do what I please. I have freed myself.
Writer: Joelle Abd El Aal
Translated From Arabic: Sabah Jalloul
Illustration: Tharwa Zeitoun
Multimedia Supervision: Fourate Chahal El Rekaby
Design: Ibrahim Charara
Editing: Rida Hariri, Sabah Jalloul
Development: Jaafar Charara, Rawan Houri
Editor: Ibrahim Charara
The subjects of the stories published on the StoryLeb platform were chosen by the young journalists and media creators who participated in the first training session of the project.
This project benefitted from the financial assistance of the European Commission within the framework of the project Shabab Live, a joint project of Deutsche Welle Akademie, Arab Resource Center for popular Arts and Al Khatt. The content of this video is the sole responsibility of StoryLeb and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the European Commission or the project partners.